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Can Open Data Improve Primary Education?

BY Susannah Vila | Thursday, December 12 2013

A primary school in Bajipura, India Credit: Flickr user nanubhai

According to the UN’s Millenium Development Goals website, primary education enrollment in developing regions reached 90 percent in 2010. And still, 123 million young people around the world lack basic reading and writing skills. Various efforts are underway to improve basic education. What role might open data play?

Educational data platforms (click the marker to see names and URLs)

Websites in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania and the Philippines are providing citizens with easier access to datasets about the quality of schools in their region. They publish official numbers like test scores, census figures or educational spending in a searchable, accessible format. In theory, this information will help parents, school directors or public officials to take actions that improve basic education according to what’s most needed. For example, a group of organized parents might lobby a director to take punitive actions against teachers who skip more days than they teach; an official might increase federal funding for a state that’s faring especially badly.

These projects are all pretty nascent and such examples of actions towards school improvement are hard to come by, but what’s clear is that open data alone will not make schools work better for kids and their parents. What else, then, do these projects need to do if they want to improve basic education?

“The first step,” according to Ricardo Fritsche of QEdu, which provides learning data for each state, county and school in Brazil, is “to make it possible for anyone to actually understand the quality of a school or the whole education system.” QEdu expects that people at the school or district level can use the data that it provided to improve curriculum, change policies or the allocation of resources. The challenge with Fritsche's expectations for QEdu is that it's difficult to get from information to action (no matter how salient or useful the information may be). A recent experiment in Kenya suggests that parents are only likely to take an action towards improvement if a number of characteristics are in place. This includes things like if they think it’s their responsibility to do something about a problem with their child’s school, if they have the skills and if they believe their behavior can change anything. The amount of accessible information about school performance doesn’t appear to be a driving factor on its own - so what else is needed?

Triggering school improvement requires a strong ecosystem of people who are already working to solve educational problems. Kenya and Tanzania each have two separate platforms providing parents with data about comparative school quality, and of the four, The Open Institute’s KCPE trends stands out for its efforts to build relationships among existing actors. “Getting dialogue and partnerships happening is the number one key outcome for us,” says Executive Director Jay Bhalla, adding: “if you are able to get these partnerships in place, chances are you will be able to address the problems that the education sector is facing, maybe not 100% but at least you’ll be working towards some of the major problems.” As part of its efforts to build the right relationships and (ultimately) forge an ecosystem of change agents, The Open Institute just held a roundtable in a Nairobi primary school for around 40 education stakeholders, including community leaders like ministers, parents, teachers and school administrators. Their goal is for individuals to commit to specific actions at the roundtable - from a syllabus change to a new classroom - and then follow through on these commitments.

When it comes to tactics for building strong ecosystems, the three year old educational data platform in the Philippines, Check My School (CMS), might be onto something. CMS began by using data released by the government as well as citizen-generated data. The latter was gathered at the request of the Department of Education, which had just begun a 25 million dollar effort to get textbooks into schools and wanted help to track their delivery. They signed an agreement with the department and recruited volunteers in localities to collect original data about schools where they live. Reaching out to more groups, building relationships and forging collaboration was key for Check My School: as part of its project design it had to work with all these different audiences to gather the data it needed. The initiative has had some success in leveraging data for small changes within individual schools, and that’s partly because of these relationships and collaborations.

It’s not impossible for open data to have a social impact on its own. The more applications, visualizations and analyses that are created with educational performance data the easier it will be for close observers to spot trends across regions and years. Perhaps this spurs competition among primary schools or effective advocacy campaigns. However, the kinds of ecosystems and popular engagement that Check My School and KCPE are working for do appear to be critical and a more direct way to use open data as a springboard for better education services. Platforms for educational data can have a greater impact if they function within an ecosystem of actors - community-based organizations, organized parents, heads of schools and private sector education ventures - that have different but overlapping incentives.

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